When Margaret had first bought her seaside bungalow, after Bill’s death, it had seemed like a very good choice. It was on a nice estate, well maintained, close enough to a doctor and a small supermarket, and there were no memories. A fresh start. A safe choice. The kind of choice that she had been making all her life. Her daughters were pleased- perhaps that was because they wanted her to be happy or perhaps they were just pleased that she was carefully parked in a place where she would need little help. Accessible but not too accessible. She wasn’t sure. Probably both. Luckily she was used to her own company- Bill had never said much- and she had always kept herself to herself as her mother had told her to, years ago. It took her a while to realise that she was being watched.
Of course she didn’t let that stop her going to the shops. Today she needed milk, the soft bread rolls with seeds on top and pork chops, so she put her coat on and strode out with her bag, keeping her head up and her face closed. No trolley dragging behind her. That was the thin edge of the wedge that led to mobility scooters and slow decline. When she was asked how her daughter was getting on by someone who she had only seen from the other side of the road, a woman whose name she didn’t know, she was taken aback. Especially when the conversation started with her own name, carefully used to claim the right of asking. She was so taken aback that she answered straight away without thinking and ended up with a conversation that she didn’t want and far more information about the other woman than she was ever going to need. It was difficult to get away. In fact she came dangerously close to accepting an invitation for coffee at the local library. She walked away frowning, wondering how the woman had known that Ruth had been in hospital. It was only after she had reached the turn in the road that led to the town centre that she remembered mentioning it in the butchers. Nowhere else. Just the butchers. They were talking about her. This was the kind of place where people sat around waiting for something to happen. It didn’t matter what it was- gas vans, ambulances, the little town bus, district nurses, a strange car parked up, you name it. Anything that moved was watched. Anything unknown was wondered about. If a pair of curtains opened at the wrong time- or worse still didn’t open- the worst was assumed. If they stayed closed whispers would begin to go round. There was much fear beneath the well ordered lawns and rose beds. These people were waiting for the worst to happen to them and they were afraid. They were sitting there, quietly watching Pointless and Tipping Point on their big televisions, waiting for their world to be blown apart. They were old enough to have seen it happen to others- it would soon be their turn. Nobody stayed lucky forever. This could not be spoken of out loud, so instead they watched other people as a defence, looking for signs that the static, airless world of their cul de sac was being disturbed. The comfort blanket of neighbourliness and care which hid this fear couldn’t quite prevent it from seeping out from under the edges along with the spite.
Margaret didn’t tell her daughter any of this of course. Nobody did. One of the sentences heard more than any other on the estate was “they’ve got their own lives”. These lives excused adult children from phone calls, shortened their visits, and provided a chance for those whose lives were no longer noticed to boast quietly about someone else. Someone who was still out there, making themselves count, living on their behalf. Smiling photos were sent through the post to take their place, objects of veneration which sat there unchanging in their frames, pointed out proudly to anyone who saw them- as though absence could be excused by an image. Mind you, when it came to Jessica, her oldest daughter, an unmoving, smiling photograph often came as something of a relief after a visit from the real thing. She might have a PhD but she wasn’t as clever as she thought she was and it was a nuisance having to hide the Daily Mail.
The butcher was his usual cheerful self.
“Hello love. What can I get you?”
Margaret wanted to tell him that she was not his love but she kept her lips closed. After all if she wouldn’t tell him her name what did she expect. She smiled politely.
“Two pork chops please.”
Yes two, Margaret thought- that surprised you didn’t it- and I’m not going to tell you why. The chops were shown to her and then wrapped up carefully. Jessica liked pork chops and she would be here in a few hours. She would braise them in a nice sauce made from white wine, a little bit of vegetable stock cube, chopped up apple, half a leek and a drop of cream. Not too much cream or Jessica would scrape off the sauce and say she was allergic. That was nonsense of course- Jessica had eaten cream for years- but you couldn’t tell her. Thinking about it she had better get some more cream in case the tub in the fridge had gone off.
“Is that all?”
“Yes, that’s all.”
She held out £3.25 towards the butcher’s outstretched hand and they both said thank you all over again. So much gratitude for two simple pork chops. Silly really.
She was glad to get out of there.
The town was quiet now that the summer visitors were gone. Familiar faces had reappeared after being lost in the crowds for a while. The saying that you had to summer and winter a place before you could think of yourself as properly settled in was never more true than here. This place was used to comings and goings. It was somewhere you could disappear. People got used to seeing you about but they didn’t think about it for very long. Plenty of people passed through, and many of them soon moved on. A face would be seen on the street for a few weeks or months, and then it would be gone. No reason why. The visitors, the retired folk on the estates who went on long cheerful rambles with the walking club, the elderly whose families deposited them in one of the large hotels on the front which had been turned into nursing homes, the visitors from the tin boxes filling the fields on the edge of the town, the day trippers who filled up the grassy car parks on the cliff top, and the students who came out of nowhere to do the seasonal work each summer, they would all leave sooner or later. This place was used to strangers and they could feel comfortable there. Or at least some of them could. At least the supermarket would be more bearable now.
They had over-baked all the seeded rolls that she liked. Again. The woman at the customer service desk was not as sorry about it as she tried to sound.
“I’ll make sure that your message gets passed on.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed just a tiny bit.
“I’ll let them know.”
Gratitude again. For what? And if “them” was the woman with the long face behind the bread display, who had a habit of mangling warm loaves of bread inside the slicing machine, she might as well not bother.
At least the cream was sitting there, ready to be bought without incident, and she remembered to reach to the back to get a better sell by date. Small victories. Sometimes she liked to go to the checkout aisle where the cheerful woman sat on the till- she always found something to laugh about and you could hear her at the other side of the store- but not today. She crept out via the self service till and allowed the disembodied voice to thank her for buying a tub of cream and a pack of six rolls that she didn’t really want. Jessica would be here soon. With little Jake.
Jake was the one human being- probably the one thing on the entire planet- that Margaret did not have mixed feelings about. Her first grandchild- two years and five months old- had proved himself utterly perfect in every way, outstripping with ease any other grandchild that anyone else might have, ever. Jake was an unexpected gift to her in late middle age, after Jessica had finally found someone to settle down with who could keep her under control and he was just……. well perfect. There was nothing else to say. When his mother complained about him Margaret had learned to sit there and answer back in her own head- usually “shut up he’s perfect”- while letting her daughter talk. It wasn’t easy being a mother. Sometimes when she listened to Jessica talking to Jake she could hear herself, over thirty years ago, and it made her cringe. She had not been a bad mother….. had she?……. but she certainly could have been a better one.
Margaret kept a box of toys in a special cupboard all ready for Jake’s visits. She liked to add something small as a surprise each time he came and she knew which biscuits and sweets he liked best. Jessica didn’t like him having too much sugar and she talked about “spoiling” but once every few weeks didn’t harm and if his gran couldn’t spoil him, who could? He ran it all off anyway. She hugged her shopping bag close as she walked back down the road, thinking of his face as the cupboard door opened and his tiny birdlike voice shouting “nan nan”. Nobody else in the whole world would ever call her that.
A young mother walked by with her own toddler, sitting bolt upright in her pushchair. They had such elaborate pushchairs these days- more like formula one racing cars than things you would take a baby out in. Not pushchairs…… what did Jessica insist they were called? Travel systems. That was it. And they cost a fortune. As if wheeling your child a few hundred yards down the road was the same as crossing the sahara. Such nonsense. There were no children living on the estate, you had to walk into town to see them. Just one more silence in a silent world of waiting.
As her bungalow came into sight Margaret’s feet sped up and her heart lifted. Not long now. Jake brought the future singing along with him each time he ran across the lawn to the house, a promise of good things ahead. She remembered her grandmother looking down at baby Jessica when she was laid on her knee for the first time- one of only three times she ever saw her- and saying, “she’s got her whole life ahead of her”. Back then she had just smiled and thought, of course she has, but now, when she looked at Jake, she was able to read her grandmother’s thoughts and understand what was being said. It was his world now. His tiny hands were carrying the remains of her life forward and what was left of her hopes had been passed down to him. All she could do was watch and marvel.